Part 5 in a series, #return to India.
The Indian head bobble is one of the first things you notice, a ubiquitous nonverbal that is neither yes nor no.
It could be either, actually, but I usually take it to mean “yes, I heard you,” and not “yes, I agree with you.” It is non-committal and a little disconcerting for westerners—but as natural as breathing for them. I saw toddlers doing it.
It is not just a way of avoiding commitments, however; it is also a way to keep from making your conversational partner—or your boss— uncomfortable. They don’t want to say you have a really bad idea. So they acknowledge you had an idea and then they ignore it. Depending on the context, it can also mean no without having to say “no.”
More likely it means “who knows?” This is not as odd as you think. Indian are extremely fatalistic. If everything you hoped for can be washed away in a monsoon, if there are thousands of somewhat capricious gods in your religion (Hinduism), if the centuries have taught you nothing is certain, or if the person you are talking to might be (or is) a god, a little nonverbal ambiguity is called for. It is our absolute certainty about everything that is perplexing.
Not that it feels ambiguous to them. It occurs in a rich context that recognizes many nuances, including sometimes just a friendly greeting: “I mean you no harm.”
The head bobble occurs everywhere, all the time, often completely unconsciously. It is a useful way to say a lot of things.
Or perhaps to say nothing at all.